Tearing the Roof off a 2-Terabyte House

I was home last night playing with the new Kinect, integrating it with Twitter, Facebook, and Zune. Particularly because of the last service, I was glad that I got the Xbox 360 model with the 250-gigabyte (gb) hard disk drive. It holds a lot more music, or photos, and of course primarily games and game data.

So we wind up with goofy scenes like my wife zooming along yesterday in Kinect Adventures’ River Rush – not only my photo (right) but in-game photos taken by the Kinect Sensor, sitting there below the TV monitor.

Later as I was waving my hands at the TV screen, swiping magically through the air to sweep through Zune’s albums and songs as if pawing through a shelf of actual LP’s, I absent-mindedly started totting up the data-storage capacity of devices and drives in my household.  Here’s a rough accounting:

  • One Zune music-player, 120gb;
  • 2 old iPods 30gb + 80gb;
  • an iPad 3G at 16gb;
  • one HP netbook 160gb;
  • an aging iMac G5 with 160gb;
  • three Windows laptops of 60gb, 150gb, and 250gb;
  • a DirecTV DVR with a 360gb disk;
  • a single Seagate 750gb external HDD;
  • a few 1gb, 2gb, and a single 32gb SD cards for cameras;
  • a handful of 2gb, 4gb, and one 16gb USB flash drives;
  • and most recently a 250gb Xbox 360, for Kinect. 

All told, I’d estimate that my household data storage capacity totals 2.5 terabytes. A terabyte, you’ll recall, is 1012 bytes, or 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) bytes, or alternately a thousand gigabytes.

I realize I’m counting only addressable fixed drives, not storage capacity per se. Otherwise I’d have to include all the recordable CDs or DVDs scattered around.  And even so I ‘m probably missing some embedded memory drives inside some devices (the microwave?), and I’m also not counting the mini-SD cards in mobile phones, simply because I forget how big they are.

But I’m also not counting something that is effectively uncountable: my online cloud-storage capacity.  I have several Windows Live accounts for a variety of purposes, and the enumerated total in each of my free associated SkyDrive online-storage accounts is 25gb. Yes, that’s an extra free 25gb per account.

But that’s nothing. My original Xbox Kinect story adds another completely liberated angle to the count – the Xbox Live angle.  Xbox Live is the online-gaming network of users (nearing some 30 million users this holiday season), and it takes great advantage of cloud computing, enabling peaks of simultaneous users in the millions. Each is taking advantage of functionally limitless online storage. 

In fact, every time I open a browser on a netbook or laptop, I’m able to reach into “my data” in online mailboxes, Netflix queues, Kindle shelves and photo albums, with no ceiling on aggregate size, thanks to the large datacenters maintained by Microsoft or Amazon or other cloud service providers.

So in effect the roof has been blown off my household data-storage.

It turns out I begin to live a bit differently when I have an addressable and unlimited amount of storage. I don’t know if these are universally true, but I have a few different predilections now. I think of digital music and entertainment differently, more broadly, and I indulge curiosity about different musical genres and artists with less hesitation. I capture events with cameras differently, more completely, and share the evidence with family and the world more fluidly and frequently. I believe that I know more about what’s going on in the world and in my extended global social circles, in real time, because of social-network services and news feeds which I control using cloud storage, never having to care about a growing stack of unread newspapers piling up or a jammed magazine rack.

Other implications of this transformation are captured in a blogpost by my colleague Dan Reed, head of Microsoft’s eXtreme Computing Group (or XCG), entitled “The Zeros Matter.”  As Dan puts it, “Bigger is not just bigger, bigger is different. Quantitative change begets qualitative change.” He explores how explosions in both storage and computational capacity will dramatically affect our ability to “manage the reliability, complexity and scaling of trans-petascale systems.”

The effect on societies, and on governmental systems collecting, analyzing, or publishing data about societies, will be profound. The trend of course will continue (see some of our Microsoft Research work in these areas), ensuring that my examples above will seem as quaintly archaic as if I were to mention the floppy disks on which I wrote a master’s thesis. 

My advice today to government technologists is simple: follow the example of innovators and Silicon Valley venture capitalists: imagine the future.

  1. Assume that current trends in storage (and computational speed/power) will accelerate;
  2. Extrapolate the vast differences in how government employees could work, and how government offices could be run, how government services could be provided;
  3. Then act dramatically to seize that future, and support it with modern, flexible systems that can take advantage of effectively unlimited storage.

In the humble household, meanwhile, we’ll get to save, store, and share goofy moments on Kinect to our heart’s content, beneath a glass roof open to the sky.

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9 Responses

  1. And here I am hoping for a great black Friday deal for a 2TB external drive so we can consolidate all our media into one central backup.

    But the big question is, when is the Kinect gaming party?

    • Ha! thanks Andrea – but no party until I get better at the goofy dance central.

      I love that you can buy a 2TB drive for less $200, but then again I prefer syncing & saving to the cloud – I’ve had external drives fail before!

  2. Lewis:

    Great post.

    You have definitely captured the heart of the issue and also laid bare the essential problem of cloud computing.

    Imagining the future is exactly what needs to be done, but the context of how those innovators and venture capitalists bring that future to life is the critical issue that needs to be addressed.

    The green movement in business is starting to expose the truth that companies can be environmentally conscious and low impact while still providing excellent products and services. From this we need companies to extrapolate that being ethical and open can also still allow for a company to thrive.

    It is that fear of the amoral and unethical profiteerin blackheart that makes the public fearful of things like cloud computing, health records on a smart card, etc. When companies regularly sell their customer data because they feel the need to squeeze the last drop of money out of every asset, people feel that they cannot trust these companies.

    This lack of trust between consumers and businesses is ultimately what is choking the innovation and creativity in the area of distributed information access. Why can’t I go to the doctor and swipe my finger on a biometric pad to identify myself and pull up my medical records, even if I have never seen this doctor before?

    The technologies exist and there are tons of creative and inventive people ready to apply and extend those technologies to improve our lives, but first we must see reform in our businesses and government to rebuild the trust of the consumer.

    • Nick – thanks for a very thoughtful comment. You’ve hit several nails on their heads. The “trust” issue is one we keep encountering, and I’m sure will continue to encounter, as more digital facets/representations/output of our real lives goes online. It certainly is the obligation of companies to do a better job of understanding the challenges and anticipating both shortcomings and hostile exploits. The good news, if there is any I think, is that it is also in the financial interest of companies and service providers to do so. Data loss and compromises are not only costly – they could literally mean corporate ruin or bankruptcy… so it is _definitely_ in the direct interest of corporate leaders and investors to take these issues seriously. Great comment, thanks! -lewis

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